KIPP SPARK, Justice Academy students among first in Newark to head back to school

An orange cone holds a sign that says KIPP NJ as parents and children line up against a brick building.
KIPP SPARK and Justice Academy teachers greeted their students with hugs and high fives on the first day of the 2023-24 school year. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

The night before his first day of school at KIPP SPARK Academy, 9-year-old Francisco laid out his uniform, packed his “big boy” backpack, and decorated it with his favorite keychain — all on his own.

His mom, Loto Chung, felt a mix of emotions as she watched her fourth grader prepare for his last year as an elementary student.

As she dropped him off in front of the Newark charter school’s entrance, she hugged him tight, wished him a good first day, and took a picture of him with his solid green Reebok backpack. 

“He didn’t want cartoon characters or superheroes on his backpack this year. He’s a big boy now,” said Chung in Spanish, as she stood outside KIPP SPARK with a group of moms reminiscing about their own first days of school. 

The fourth grader is among Newark’s first students to head back to school this year, more than two weeks before the city’s roughly 38,000 public school students, who start classes on Sept. 5. He joins nearly 800 kindergarten through fourth grade students at KIPP SPARK, up from 500 students last year. Another 200 fifth through seventh grade students at KIPP Justice Academy will also be in the same building. 

On Thursday morning, teachers greeted their students with hugs and high fives. Volunteers from other KIPP New Jersey schools welcomed KIPP SPARK and Justice students getting off yellow school buses. Police officers guided traffic as children wearing yellow and blue polo shirts pointed at balloons on the corner of Second and Sussex Avenue. 

Morgan Thomas, assistant principal at KIPP SPARK Academy, hugs Foshea, one of her students. (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

The elementary and middle schools moved to their North Ward location this year after being on Halsey Street in downtown. Previously, the new building was home to KIPP Truth, which is now part of KIPP SPARK. 

With more than 300 new families and over 100 staff members, KIPP SPARK principal Tamika Killins said there “is a lot of people to manage and lots of students to be responsible for” but the most important thing for her this school year is making sure her students and families “feel planted here.” 

Earlier this month, she welcomed new families, students, and staff members to a back-to-school night where she was able to “start developing relationships with parents,” an ongoing goal for Killins as school leader. 

“I have such a strong leadership team and if any school can pull this off, it’s definitely us,” Killins added.

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Hundreds of KIPP SPARK and Justice Academy students made their way to school on Aug. 17, 2023, marking the first day of their 2023-24 school year.  (Jessie Gomez / Chalkbeat)

The new brick school building comes with more outdoor space and this year, the elementary school plans to build a school garden with the help of the Greater Newark Conservancy, Killins said. Students will also have a chance to delve into space and engineering in a new after-school STEM club led by a first grade teacher. 

At the middle school, the staff is incorporating more social emotional learning activities,  including 30-minute sessions twice a week to focus on peer mediation and leadership opportunities for seventh graders to lead mediation sessions. 

And across KIPP New Jersey schools, the work to boost academic performance after the pandemic set students in Newark and across the country behind will continue this school year with partnerships to provide high-dosage tutoring in math and reading. 

Like Chung, Miram Mieles felt nervous about her fourth grader, Santiago, navigating a new school building and making friends. Santiago’s first language is Spanish and he is learning English after his family immigrated from Ecuador earlier this year.

As a result of their move, Santiago attended Newark schools for the first time at the end of last year, Mieles said. He has received help from teachers to develop his language skills and Mieles is hopeful her son will learn English in the coming months. 

“He woke up on his own today and he was excited to see his new friends,” Mieles added. 

For Ashley Brooks, the nerves set in after she dropped off her second and fifth grade students, Ava and Aubrey. Her oldest daughter has an Individualized Education Program and Brooks wants to make sure she continues getting the support she needs. Brooks’ children are entering their second year at KIPP Spark and Justice and are former North Star students.

“So far, I have no complaints, but I’m always talking to her and asking her questions about her class and teachers,” Brooks said. 

Younger students were also eager to wake up at 7:00 a.m. to get ready for school. Shaunice Ross’s third grade son, Dionte, walked to the front entrance of the school, grinning from ear to ear and eager to get inside. He nodded as his mom asked him if he was excited to see his friends and teachers. 

Said Ross: “He’s so happy to be going back.”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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